Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Paper Butterfly, by Diane Wei Liang (hardcover, $24

I enjoyed Eye of Jade, Liang's first book in her series, quite a lot. Written in English but with what feels like a very flavorful taste of authentic Beijing, Eye of Jade captured what it must be like to be a progressive woman in Communist China but saddled with traditional, centuries-old cultural expectations.

In the first book we gradually learned Mei Wang's back story, which is unfortunately not repeated in any detail in this second book, so the reader is left sort of clueless about her relationship with her mother. It must suffice for you to know that there is more than meets the eye and a resolution is surely to come in a future book.

Mei Wang is a private detective. A female private detective. In a country that outlaws private detectives, male or female. Although she started her adult life full of promise and on the right side of the law -- i.e., in a government post with good promotional possibilities -- she now works for herself with only one lowly helper, an immigrant from a rural area of China. Both the story of how she fell from grace and the descriptions of what she has to deal with to solve her clients' problems highlight what a moribund and corrupt society Wang lives in. Fortunately, she is a person clever enough to negotiate its Byzantine (or perhaps "Manchurian" is a better word) structures.

Wang is hired to find a missing pop singer. For the first half of the book, this story alternates with one of a man released from an isolated prison in which, we discover, he has been kept for participating in the student protest at Tiananmen Square. The book heads these two stories towards each other. It doesn't matter that you can probably guess what's coming; it is the journey that counts.

I felt the first book conveyed the patience and tenacity of Mei Wang better than this one, mostly because it dealt with Wang's early life, but also because the story had a center of quiet before the illumination, something this one lacks. And unfortunately, some of the characters in the second book are more parodies than realistic depictions, and that creates a dissonance that makes it difficult to thoroughly enjoy this book.

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